A favorite New Testament passage is the story of the “Good Shepherd” in John chapter 10. This is also our reading for the fourth Sunday in Easter (John 10:11-18). In this account, Jesus tells the story of the Good Shepherd while standing on the steps of the outer courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem.
To modern readers, the story that Jesus gives us a very straightforward analogy: Jesus is to the disciples what the Good Shepherd is to his flock. Jesus tells us three things. First, he is the Good Shepherd whose sheep follow him and recognize his voice. Second, Jesus, the Good Shepherd is the gate through whom all must pass to be saved and find pasture. Third, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
But the story gets a little more involved, because Jesus contrasts himself to two other people, first the robber or the wolf, and secondly, the hired man. Many scholars believe that Jesus had specific people in mind when he told this story, while standing at the entrance or gate that opened on the Temple court yard.
Jesus Stands at the Door to the Temple Courtyard
As Jesus stands under the arched portico in front of the outer courtyard, he says in Johnn 10:1, Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. What most English bibles translate as sheepfold (or sheep’s pen) is aule (Strong’s 833) in Greek. The term aule can mean either a public courtyard, or a pen for animals. Hence, Jesus literally states, whoever does not enter the courtyard through the gate is a thief and a robber.
Who Is the Thief or the Wolf?
But who is Jesus referring to when he speaks of the thief who would climb over the wall, rather than walk through the gate? Is it Bar Abbas – the man who was condemned to death, but then is subsequently released (rather than Jesus) at Pilate’s trial? This is the thesis of some biblical scholars. Bar Abbas is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts. Matthew the Evangelist says Bar Abbas was a notorious prisoner. John the Evangelist calls him a thief. Consider the passage from the Evangelist Mark at verse 15:7: ην δε ο λεγομενος βαραββας μετα των στασιαστων δεδεμενος οιτινες εν τη στασει φονον πεποιηκεισαν. Mark tells us, with no further explanation, that the rioters, Bar Abbas among them, “had committed murder (φονον) in the riot (στασει).” Some scholars believe the “riot” was a failed attempt to storm the Temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus Ridicules the “Hired Man” who Does not Care for the Sheep
Jesus then ridicules not only the thief or wolf, but also the hired man (verse 12) who sees the wolf (also verse 12) and runs away. In other words, whoever was responsible for protecting the Temple and the courtyard from the person who would climb the wall, is a hired man, and not a true shepherd. We might well conclude that the hired man [who] works for pay and has no concern for the sheep is Caiaphas. Caiaphas is a leader of the Temple, and a member of a political dynasty. He is a High Priest and son-in-law of Annas, one of the most influential members of the Sanhedrin during the first half of the first century, C.E.
By criticizing Caiaphas, one of the leaders and high priests of the Temple, Jesus sides with those who object to the Temple leadership cooperating so closely with the Roman occupiers. Yet we have more than circumstantial evidence that Caiaphas is the hired hand. In the very next chapter, John the Evangelist names Caiaphas as the chief priest (and the coward) who decides that it is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish in John 11:49-53.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd
If Jesus is referring to Bar Abbas and Caiaphas, then what is he trying to say? In verse 4 he states that only His sheep “follow him, because they recognize his voice.” In other words, his true disciples know who the Son of Man is, and they are not about to be misled by thieves and robbers who storm the Temple courtyard, nor by hired hands who do not care for the sheep.
In verse 11 Jesus says “a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is a commentary on the unselfishness of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd is not a thief, a robber, or a brigand. The Good Shepherd does not come to cause violence; but he may be called upon to lay down his life to protect his own flock. By the way, I replaced the painting by Pieter Bruegel with a more pastoral image by Phillipe de Champaigne.
Jesus also refers to himself as gatekeeper in verse 10:3. As he stood at the steps of the temple, astride the entrance to the courtyard, he is referring to himself as the one who provides access to the sheepfold. His listeners, who combine the spoken words of Jesus, the current events of which they aware, and the symbolism as to where Jesus is standing, can more fully understand precisely who Jesus is – the Good Shepherd – and who he is not (a thief or a hired hand).
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”